Three reasons why your business development efforts aren’t working

By Richard Tromans

What should be the overarching aim of any law firm business development (BD) team? The immediate response has to be: to help increase the revenues and profits of the law firm. The problem is, beyond this point there can be a lot of uncertainty. How do you know you are helping to win the right work, from the right clients, in the right geographical locations, for the right practice areas, at the right prices, using the right resources? In short, how do you make sure your BD effort is really moving the firm closer to where it wants to get to?

The question is further complicated by the increasing number of channels that BD can operate across. One could fill a page listing every possible BD activity, from collecting client feedback, to designing pitches, to developing thought leadership projects, to creating an entire new suite of blogs, twitter feeds and partner videos, and much more besides. In fact, the scale and complexity of BD in a modern law firm means it can be a challenge for even the most rigorous BD head to keep track, or always be sure that what is sent out has the right message.

When in doubt the litmus test for any BD work should be: does it align with the firm’s strategic plan? Or put another way, do the messages you are sending to the market make it more likely your firm will fulfil its strategic goals?

Your website may not be a work of art and your firm brochures may not be Nobel Prize-winning material, but if what you are producing is closely aligned with your firm’s strategic plan then it is far more valuable than the BD of a rival firm that has not aligned its output, no matter how glossy their “product” may appear. Of course, achieving strategic BD alignment is easier said than done. In fact, success here has many obstacles. Let us consider some of those challenges below.

Strategy? What strategy?

The first reason aligning BD with strategy sometimes fails is that the firm does not actually have a strategy. You might, (or perhaps might not…), be surprised by how many law firms don’t really have one. In other cases a firm does have a detailed strategy, but it is sitting in a desk drawer in the managing partner’s office gathering dust and has never been implemented. In such circumstances the BD team can only maintain the status quo, ie do what they did before without knowing if what they are doing is helping or hindering the firm’s objectives. They are “flying blind”, in effect.

Another challenge can occur when the management team chooses not to include the BD team in the high level strategy conversation. Or, if they are present, they are not truly expected to contribute in a substantive way. This can sometimes happen because some senior fee-earners do not recognise the importance of their BD team and the insight they have on the market. This is waste of a firm’s own resources as many BD professionals are communicating to the clients on a daily basis and collecting large amounts of actionable intelligence.

Pulling apart, not pulling pogether

A variation on this theme is when strategy has been articulated, but because of excessive delegation of BD efforts to individual practice areas the firm works against itself and does not send an aligned message to the market. It makes sense to have BD teams “embedded” inside practice areas, but sometimes the process can become uncoordinated when BD professionals operate in isolation. One cause of this is partners who see their practice area as a personal fiefdom with its own modus operandi, which in turn stymies that practice’s BD alignment with the rest of the firm.

The following is an example of what can happen when a central strategy is ignored. The IP team launches a mass of blogs and videos with great excitement, spending many thousands of pounds, though no-one checks to see if they match the firm’s global objectives – and it turns out most of the material doesn’t. The corporate finance team commissions a huge thought leadership report for AIM companies because that is where the practice’s lead partner historically has the most client contacts, though the firm’s central strategy document says the clients that now must be targeted are in the FTSE 250, not listed on AIM. While the real estate partners “don’t believe in BD” and give little for their allocated BD professionals to do. The real estate partners are content as long as the outside PR agency produces regular press releases on local commercial property deals, even though the firm’s new strategy demands raising client awareness of its cross-border capability above all else, because that is where the greatest fees can be earned.

The message, not the medium

One other problem is when both the partners and the BD team get lost in the medium, rather than focussing on the message. New modes of networking and communication are exciting, but don’t let that blind to you to their purpose. Whether it be Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube or something else, it is not that important as long as all content matches the right messages to the right audience, which in turn must align to the overarching strategic plan.

Technology won’t stop creating new ways for BD teams to lose their way. The rule here is to master the new means of communication as fast as you can and then move on. Integrate these new media into your repertoire, but don’t mistake them for the message. The truth is that the more ways you have to communicate, the greater the risk your messaging will go awry or lose focus. This doesn’t mean stop communicating so broadly, or give up on new media; far from it. New media is to be embraced. It simply underlines the need for a fiercely co-ordinated and disciplined approach to BD.

Conclusion

As can be seen, the best intentions of BD teams can get side-lined by the realities of a law firm’s internal politics or lack of clarity on where the partners should be focussed. It is also difficult for a BD team to change the way a firm approaches the subject if they don’t have a seat at the top table or a voice that is heard when the major decisions on strategy are made. At present there are some great examples of law firms whose BD professionals are perfectly integrated into the strategic process. There are also other firms whose BD teams are still treated as if they should be seen but not heard. In the latter case, aligning BD with firm strategy will always be a challenge.

(In a future blog: how BD teams successfully align their output with firm strategy and avoid the pitfalls noted above).

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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